NS Book Review: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM by Frank S. Robinson

By Randy Brich 

The Case for Rational OptimismA comment by Frank S. Robinson (author of The Case for Rational Optimism) on my review of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:  How Prosperity Evolves prompted me to request and read Robinson’s book. In an age where irrational pessimism pervades the educational and political spectrum, Robinson argues for rational optimism by drawing on a wide range of literature and applying what appears to be seriously deficient on both extremes of the political bell curve -- common sense and reason.  Utilizing the central thesis that humans are more good than evil, Robinson proceeds to describe the majority of cases where, given freedom, humans have always chosen good.  According to Robinson, the freedom to choose manifested itself best 200 years ago in America -- a beacon of light shining above a sea of global chaos.  However, Robinson carefully points out that even America hasn’t been, is not now and never will be perfect. But compared to other nations, America remains the best government invented by man. 

A powerful treatise that may offend overly sensitive people, The Case for Rational Optimism applies the heavy weight of objective analysis to a variety of current issues, leaving no room for lightweight subjective sentiments. Slaying sacred cows like a medieval knight wasting mythical dragons, Robinson fearlessly, er, optimistically, marches into the fray armed with reason, logic and optimism and ruthlessly dispatches the emotionally-based fear so rampant in today’s modern society.  

Robinson’s no slouch and he takes on all comers from “America the Beautiful” to “War and Peace” and everything in between, including:

"reason and morality; living the good life; happiness as a choice; satisfaction; mind, thought and free will; why we are judgmental and should be; science, technology, and nature; love, marriage and sex; individualism and society; the problem of government; the two America’s: rich and richer; the virtues of free market capitalism; globalization, trade, growth and poverty; why corporations are not monsters of evil; don’t believe the prophets of doom; global warming and modern times. "

Arguing his case from the preponderance of evidence, Robinson concludes that freedom of choice allows humans to achieve ever increasing greater goods.  Specifically, these goods include all things that make modern man better off than his ancestors, especially increased longevity, enhanced wellness, improved environment, decreased hostility, or, to put it in simple terms a superior quality of life.  At no time in the past have humans been as well off as they are now and as other nations discover the central theme of America -- that freedom equals prosperity -- the overall trend toward less hostility and more cooperation becomes readily apparent. 

These strong well-thought-out arguments make the book worth reading; however, I wish Robinson would have spent more time detailing the importance of inexpensive energy to America’s march toward progress.  Without access to cheap energy fueling the engines of commerce, prosperity will diminish and the quality of life will degrade, especially for the poor as they are most dependent on affordable energy.  Equally, I wish Robinson would have questioned the global warming argument more fully (a subject for a review coming soon to Nuclear Street).  

Further, Robinson’s apparently naive acceptance that green energy and conservation can significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels in a reasonable time frame contradicts the evidence I’ve seen.  Based on all the books I’ve read and reviewed  it’s extremely unlikely that renewable energy sources can make much difference in the big picture in the foreseeable future.  In his free downloadable book Sustainable Energy --- Without the Hot Air ,Cambridge physicist David MacKay does the heavy lifting by estimating UK’s renewable energy requirements and concludes that if the citizens do not want coal or nuclear, then they had better want a lot of windmills and pump storage facilities - each with its own attendant environmental negatives.  Accordingly, a policy that increases energy costs by taxing CO^2 emissions will hurt those who can least afford it – the poor.  As Dr. Roy Spencer  points out, denying the poor their right to inexpensive energy based on an unproven theory (i.e., that feedbacks are positive) challenges even the most rational optimist that everything will turn out OK.   

Kudos to Robinson for mentioning nuclear power in a positive light – something that doesn’t happen frequently enough in our modern world. When compared to fossil fuels, nuclear is the next best source of dispatchable, reliable, safe and affordable energy. With 61 new reactors under construction worldwide, none of which are in America, Robinson recognizes what other world leaders have known for quite awhile, that the time for nuclear power generation has come and America needs to get with the program. 

Regardless of these few not-so-obvious shortcomings, The Case for Rational Optimism, presents a solid answer to the question no one else is asking: What good is the environment if humans don’t use it? Robinson wades in deeply and proceeds to show how free market-based systems do more good for the environment (because they can afford to spend money on protecting it) than other economies.  Finally, Robinson’s book provides an excellent introduction for anyone interested in a cogent approach to the modern world, an approach we definitely could use more of in the next few years.

The Case for Rational Optimism
Frank S. Robinson
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2009, 327 pp
ISBN: 978-1-4128-0757-9 (cloth)

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